Arctic Monkeys: Humbug
From time immemorial, there have always been very good rock bands that were able to achieve what the Arctic Monkeys can in terms of hammering drums, energetic guitars and vocal agility. What really set the Sheffield four-piece apart, and made at least some of the monstrous hype around them justifiable, is their ability to wrap this formidable music around lead singer Alex Turner’s remarkable ability for penning witty and relatable tales of an observational, achingly poetic soul.
With third studio album ‘Humbug’, produced by Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, the Arctic Monkeys have, for the larger part, traded in their endearing genuineness and remarkable lyrical dexterity for a darker sound and oblique lyrics that, more often than not, fall short of the bar of expectation that they have previously set. Their resolute change in direction feels forced; the shift in the band’s rudimentary sound doesn’t seem, despite the Monkeys’ best attempts, as effortless as their physical relocation thousands of miles from Sheffield, the city of their original inspiration, to the California desert where most of the recording took place.
Sonically, echoes of Alex’s orchestral-pop-rock side project The Last Shadow Puppets are clearly apparent throughout the album. This, paired with the forbiddingly threatening atmosphere which Homme has managed to draw out, creates a strong visual of a deserted carnival-turned-horror-show, a concept that the Monkeys toyed with in several songs of 2006′s ‘Favorite Worst Nightmare’, most notably in the “Fluorescent Adolescent” music video.
Of the songs, the ones which bowl you over are the ones which still retain a tangible link to the Monkeys’ former swaggering (yet unpretentious) selves, perhaps providing the most concrete proof that this new-found and blatantly sinister sound is not such a good idea.
In the subtle, pretty “Cornerstone”, Turner weaves a detailed story about missing his ex; the song, with a lyrical twist towards the end which will bring a wry smile to your lips, proves to be a throw-back to their B-side acoustic gem “The Bakery” in mood and content, but with an obvious Puppets influence.
One of the best songs here is the serene “Secret Door”, which offers an atypical story relating to the clichéd theme about the trappings of extraordinary fame. The pleasant track, which shines with some of the vocal verve that Alex was once lauded for, presents a sweet ode to his lover who has been able to composedly adapt to the fame and paparazzi that undoubtedly comes with being Alex Turner’s girlfriend, told in some genuinely splendid lyrics. The ominous first single “Crying Lightning” is another standout track; with the help of potent bass lines and a catchy chorus, it tells the story of a crazy girl whose “twisted and deranged” games Turner initially likes but grows to hate.
The frantic “Pretty Visitors” contains both really very good lyrics (“All the pretty visitors came and waved their arms / And cast the shadow of a snake pit on the wall”, a nod to the often-mob-like extremists who count themselves as Arctic Monkeys fans) and really very bad lyrics: in this song, Alex invents perhaps one of his most mournfully bizarre lines, “What came first, the chicken or the dickhead?”.
“Dangerous Animals”, with its precise drums and slick production, could have been a killer track, if not for Alex’s decision to compromise on good lyrics by instead spelling the song’s title several times through the song (“D-A-N-G-E-R-O-U-S A-N-I-M-A-L-S”, says he). The kitsch manages to overshadow an otherwise promising tale full of oblique references to a dominating girlfriend.
The problem with most of the songs is that, even though they’re not bad while you’re listening to them, they’re not especially infectious or memorable much beyond that. Don’t expect to wake up with a tune from ‘Humbug’ sprinting around your head; the Arctic Monkeys have apparently decided that they don’t do that anymore. “Dance Little Liar”, about a cheat being warned about his probably-suspicious girlfriend, is one such song. The aimless “Fire and the Thud” is easily the weakest track on the album. After spending almost four minutes wondering what they’re trying to do with the music, you are left with a thoroughly flummoxed wonderment that the Arctic Monkeys have finally reached the dismal point where one of their songs just (almost) put you to sleep.
The album closes with the directionless “Jeweler’s Hands”, providing a stark contrast to ‘Favorite Worst Nightmare”s epic closer “505″ and ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not”s modern-indie-rock-classic closer “A Certain Romance”.
A recurring theme in Humbug is the sly sleazy overtones. “My Propeller” is just a huge three-and-a-half minute innuendo fest, while songs like “Dangerous Animals” (“Let’s make a mess, lioness,” exhorts Alex. Seriously.) add to this new twist. The surprisingly Nirvana-esque “Potions Approaching” also furthers this theme, with leery lines about, er, oceans and what not.
What really manages to keep the album somewhat together, however, is the masterful drumming. While the improvement of the Arctic Monkeys as a band is up for debate, the improvement of Matt Helders is not; this guy is unquestionably one of the best drummers out there today, almost singlehandedly turning this mediocre album into a grudgingly decent one, music-wise. Overall, however, ‘Humbug’ doesn’t have enough of the qualities that are so characteristic of the Monkeys. The cutting slice-of-life anecdotes, the instantly-likeable riffs, and the band members’ individual personalities which earlier used to bind the fans so powerfully to the band, are all tuned down, to be replaced by a menacing, all-pervading blackness and lyrics that attempt, mostly in vain, the stream-of-consciousness style.
In trying to mash up The Last Shadow Puppets, Queens of the Stone Age, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Cream, Hendrix and whatever else they were listening to during recording, the lads seem to have misjudged the amount of the one ingredient that really makes people want to listen to their records: themselves. Perhaps they were consciously trying a little too hard to be as unlike themselves as they possibly can. In any case, if you want to hear the Monkeys at their lyrical and musical pinnacle, pick up a copy of ‘Favorite Worst Nightmare’. For now, let’s just hope that ‘Humbug’ is a stepping stone for a future album that manages to evoke that unique Arctic Monkeys feel once again — because this one really doesn’t.